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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China's India PR Guy

July 17, 2008

By Tenzing Sonam
Himal Southasian
September 2, 2007

In the early days of the Russian Revolution, starry-eyed Western
sympathisers made a beeline for Moscow to report on the glories of
the 'Soviet paradise'. Lenin memorably referred to them as 'useful
idiots', and exploited their naiveté to channel communist propaganda
to the West. One such 'idiot', the American journalist Lincoln
Steffens, went on a guided tour of the Soviet Union in 1919, seeing
enough to gushingly pronounce: "I have been over into the future, and
it works." We know what happened to that future.

After Western intellectuals became disenchanted with the excesses of
Stalin, a new generation of leftist idealists turned to Mao and the
Chinese Revolution for ideological succour. Like Lenin, Mao
understood that he could turn their blind enthusiasm to his
advantage, and used them to propagate stories that were wildly at
odds with reality. Edgar Snow's account of Mao's heroics during the
Long March has now been proven to be fiction. Tibet, too, suffered
grotesque distortions of fact at the hands of China's handpicked
Western acolytes. Roma and Stuart Gelder's Timely Rain came out in
the early 1960s, when Tibet was reeling from its first-ever famine, a
result of misguided communist policies. Han Suyin's optimistically
titled Lhasa: An open city was written in 1975, at a time when Tibet
was as closed to the outside world as North Korea is today. These
writings have long been discredited, even as the horrific human cost
of Mao's 'socialist' experiments has been exposed and the Communist
Party of China has become capitalist in all but name.

And then we have the recent writings of N Ram, the editor of the
massively influential Indian newspaper The Hindu, whose unashamedly
one-sided reporting of China's rule in Tibet has about it the same
ring of fervent admiration and suspended disbelief. In his eagerness
to extol the virtues of Chinese policies in Tibet, Ram eerily echoes
Steffens. After a week's guided tour of Tibet as an official guest of
China earlier this summer, Ram confidently proclaimed: "A quarter
century from now, possibly earlier, Tibet will reach the status of a
developed society." He then went on to try and prove this contention
in two long opinion pieces in The Hindu, and a detailed article in
the paper's sister publication, Frontline, all of which came out this
past July. Aside from his tour, Ram's only sources for such rosy
prognostication were a litany of official Chinese statistics, the
accuracy of which are debatable at best: "[Tibet's] economy … grew by
no less than 13.2 percent", "GDP climbed to a level of 29 billion
yuan", "foodgrain production touching 920,000 tonnes", "school
enrolment covers 96.5 percent of children", "unprecedented 1.5
billion yuan package of environment protection measures", and on and
on. The only Tibetan Ram seemed to have interviewed just happens to
be the vice-chairman of the government in Tibet.

Is Ram really as naïve as he appears? Driving through Tibet, he
breezily observed: "A surprise is how easily you can connect to the
outside world: the GPRS on your mobile phone (or PDA) works along
much of the Lhasa-Xigaze highway. While browsing the Internet for
news of the outside world or answering your email, you can catch a
glimpse of how the bulk of Tibetans live." Obviously he must not have
tried to search for 'Tiananmen' or 'Dalai Lama', or any of the
countless other words and phrases that have been deemed subversive by
the Chinese authorities, or he would have had first-hand experience
of the Great Firewall of China, the most efficient and sophisticated
Internet-censorship system in the world. Or, more worryingly, is Ram
wilfully trying to deceive his readership?

Compromised objectivity

On the matter of Tibet, Ram is open about his prejudices. He
lambastes the Dalai Lama, whose popularity he compares to that of
Ayatollah Khomeini. Using language that seems dusted from the Cold
War closet, he rails against what he describes as the Dalai Lama's
"alignment with colonial interests and Western powers", accusing him
of being "a consummate politician leading a movement that seeks to
take 'Greater Tibet' away from the motherland." One could look at
this criticism in the context of China's vast holding of US Treasury
bonds, which literally keeps its economy afloat, and ask who exactly
is more aligned with Western powers, the Chinese government or the
Dalai Lama. One could also easily point the finger of colonialism at
China's invasion and forcible occupation of Tibet.

Ram claims that "while the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation
belongs to the mystical-religious realm and asks a lot from 21st
century believers, the Dalai Lama's approach even to rebirth is
decidedly ideological-political." However, he also says that the
Beijing government continues to follow "centuries-old custom and
tradition that empower it to recognise and appoint both the Dalai and
the Panchen Lama." The historical accuracy of this statement is
debatable, but it also begs the question: Why does an avowedly
atheistic Communist Party find it necessary to involve itself in the
'mystical-religious realm' in the 21st century?

Ram contends that China's Constitution "guarantees religious freedom
to all citizens and regional autonomy to ethnic minorities in
extensive parts of a giant country." But is it really enough to cite
the existence of a law to prove that all is as it should be? Surely a
journalist of Ram's stature is aware of the ongoing repression of
religious freedom, not only in Tibet but throughout China. It remains
a crime in Tibet to be found in possession of the Dalai Lama's
picture. Amnesty International's 2006 report on China stated that, in
Tibet, "freedom of religion, expression and association continued to
be severely restricted and arbitrary arrests and unfair trials continued".

Nonetheless, Ram trots out the same old mentions of "China's
unprecedented economic growth" and "inclusive and nuanced
socio-political and cultural policies" as markers of its "exceptional
patience" in dealing with the Tibet issue. This is remarkable praise
for a country where, even by its own admission, there is a growing
division between rich and poor. Still more beguiling is Ram's
continued faith in the Communist Party of China's Marxist
credentials. "The law," he writes, "defines national regional
autonomy as the basic political system of the Communist Party of
China to solve the country's ethnic issues using Marxism-Leninism."
That the party has now launched a form of 'Leninist capitalism'
untrammelled by democratic freedoms or trade-union rights is well
known. At this point, the only ideology guiding Beijing's rulers is
how to hold on to absolute power at any cost.

By consigning Tibet's fate so unambiguously to the implied
benevolence of its Chinese overlords, Ram forgets that India, too,
has a stake in this matter. He dismisses the Dalai Lama's claim that
Tibet had "been a strategic 'buffer state' in the heart of Asia
guaranteeing the region's stability" for centuries. Yet, the truth is
that, until the People's Liberation Army invaded Tibet in 1950, India
and China had never shared a common border. What is Ram's response to
Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Yuxi's blithe assertion last November
that "the whole of the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese
territory"? Surely the editor of The Hindu knows that, had Tibet not
been forcibly deprived of its sovereignty, such imperious statements
from his Chinese friends would not have been forthcoming? And would
any Chinese newspaper publish a defence of India's sovereignty over
Arunachal Pradesh in the way The Hindu and Frontline have so
wholeheartedly been doing recently, to promote the Chinese line on
Tibet? Or does Ram have a different measure for basic democratic
freedoms in different countries?

It is widely held that since Ram took over as editor-in-chief of The
Hindu in June 2003, his aggressively pro-China sympathies have
compromised the objectivity of a newspaper that had once been dubbed
one of the world's ten best newspapers. Today, it is possibly the
only respectable newspaper in India that reproduces, verbatim,
stories put out by the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua,
described by the Reporters without Borders organisation as "the
world's biggest propaganda agency." Journalists working for The Hindu
have spoken about recent directives not to write stories about Tibet,
the Dalai Lama or Falun Gong that could be perceived as critical of
China. This is verifiable from even a cursory study of The Hindu's
reports on these subjects since Ram took control.

The key question here is, why is such an eminently respected
journalist risking his personal reputation -- not to mention the
integrity of his newspaper -- by willingly setting himself up as a
modern-day 'useful idiot' for China? Unlike his fellow travellers of
the past, Ram can claim neither the fire of idealism nor the
smokescreen of ignorance to justify his unquestioning promotion of
the totalitarian Beijing regime and its colonial hold on Tibet.

Tenzing Sonam is a Tibetan filmmaker and writer based in New Delhi.
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